Episodic design 2.0 - Gameplay and storytelling at its best (Part 1)
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
About a year ago, I published a feature on the design of episodic games. I listed my recommendations on their mechanics and I expressed my belief that this new way to design games would expand because of the benefits episodic storytelling could bring to the quality of games; the success of TV series demonstrates that this way of telling stories does bring added value.
A year later, how do episodic games stand?
Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
On the positive side, episodic games are becoming bigger: Square Enix has published the last Hitman game in episodes, DontNod’s episodic game Life Is Strange has become a planetary success, Batman has been successfully adapted to the episodic format by Telltales.
On the negative side, the number of episodic titles have not increased substantially and no major publisher, with the exception of Square Enix, has shown interest in this format. In other words, the early public curiosity for episodic games has not turned into a massive rally.
Could this situation be a bad omen for episodic games? Will they remain niche products or even disappear?
Possibly, but I remain convinced that episodic games will become truly popular when they offer solid gameplays and do not rely on their uniqueness to attract players. That was the conclusion of my previous feature.
With this new publication, I intend to demonstrate that it is possible to develop episodic games that offer strong gameplays that most players are looking for while benefiting from the strengths of episodic storytelling. To do that, I will describe two examples of game concepts and explain how gameplay and episodic storytelling support each other in order to create a new experience for players.
But first, let’s review the strengths of episodic storytelling.
«The defense has the floor!»
I believe in episodic storytelling because I think it can bring benefits to players and our industry.
First, it could improve the overall game experience. Storytelling is not a mere wrapping of the gameplay anymore; it becomes a component that adds value to the game and, most importantly, storytelling creates different experiences from what gamers are used to. Adding quality storytelling to a title is a good strategy to differentiate one’s game from its competition. Think of The Last Of Us.
Second, episodic design is an alternative business model for games that essentially rely on one-player game mode such as Assassin’s Creed, Resident Evil, or Uncharted. It allows a publisher to attract gamers with a very low price, the price for the first episode, and to keep them longer thanks to the strong retention potential of episodic storytelling. Today, publishers earn extra revenue by selling DLCs for their multiplayer games. Episodic design could do the same for games with no multiplayer mode.
Last but not least, episodic design is a great support for the development of game worlds which can foster long term retention as MMOs do. It opens the possibility, for one-player games, to publish new content without going through the expensive process of publishing yearly sequels. Ubisoft’s The Division is a forerunner of that trend.
Episodic design brings real benefits but designers have to adapt their designs and scriptwriters must understand how to integrate storytelling into level design.
I will not go over the details of my recommendations regarding game design and scriptwriting. If you are interested, I encourage you to read my previous publication. However, I will highlight its main points.
Let’s start with episodic storytelling.
Episodic storytelling: Narration on steroids
Two dimensions of episodic storytelling make this narrative technique especially effective: Characters and story structure.
Characters are at the heart of the great effectiveness of television series because of the relationship that develops between them and their audience. The audience gets so attached to characters that spectators end up following the series because they have empathy for them, not because they enjoy the plot. Empathy is the key word. When we feel empathy toward someone, an invisible link develops between us and him or her. We follow the storyline because this character matters to us.
Episodic storytelling is very good at creating empathy between its audience and its fictional characters for several reasons:
- It has the time needed to develop characters
- Most characters in a series are « normal » people that go through « extraordinary » events. It is easier to feel close to them.
- It can support numerous characters with very different personalities. Thus, a spectator is more likely to come across one that he or she likes more.
For example, the success of Life Is Strange lies essentially on the empathy we develop toward Max, a teenager, but also with secondary characters like Chloe, her rebellious best friend.
In « traditional » video games, the presence of characters toward whom we develop empathy can contribute to the quality of the player’s experience. Think of Nathan Drake, the hero of Uncharted games. This bond can get even stronger in a series where we have more time to discover characters.
Let’s investigate how the second key dimension of episodic storytelling, the narrative structure. Traditional storytelling is built around one narrative arch but episodic storytelling is built on multiple narrative arches. Of course, it always features a central arch whose purpose is to set the story environment and to attract the audience. However, episodic storytelling rests on several narrative arches and those are very important for its success; multiple narrative arches make it possible to focus on different characters and to avoid audience boredom. Furthermore, they are great at generating cliffhangers at the end of each episode.
Now let’s review gameplays currently offered in episodic games.
Gameplays in episodic games: Puzzles and pop-corn
Today, most episodic games are built around gameplays found in adventure games; player’s experience largely rests on exploration, finding items, solving contextual puzzles and dialogs. A few games use QTEs (Quick Time Events) to bring some action gameplay but then, most of the time is spent watching cut-scenes.
Why are adventure gameplays so present in episodic games? Probably because game designers tend to associate those gameplays with story-driven games. This reflex is not justified. There are successful story-driven games that offer true action-focused gameplays: Silent Hill, SOMA, Republique, etc.
Several episodic games do offer good experiences, as demonstrated by their commercial success But their heavy reliance on QTEs strongly affects their appeal toward most gamers. Today, the heart of the market is focused on action games, not adventure ones. Therefore, I strongly believe that the future of episodic games lies in titles that will offer mainstream gameplays.
A title that will manage to fuse traditional action gameplay and episodic storytelling will bring a new and exciting game experience. The action gameplay will cater to large number of gamers and the inherent strength of episodic narration will make the game much more enthralling.
This is what the Hitman’s developers tried to achieve. Did they succeed?
The Hitman case
This game series developed by Danish studio IO Interactive is built around a fabulous infiltration gameplay. The player controls a hitman, a paid assassin, whose targets are very difficult to hit. What makes Hitman’s gameplay so effective is that the player enjoys many tactical choices to locate his target, to kill it and to evade once his mission has been completed. This game features a true action gameplay but also requires a lot of thinking. As such, it targets midcore to hardcore gamers.
For its last installment, Hitman was released in episodic format. The first episode released by publisher Square Enix in 2016. Several other episodes followed soon after. They all take place in different environments: Paris, Marrakech, Bangkok, etc. All the episodes make up a season. Square Enix announced that it had plans for three seasons.
Each episode features completely different experiences: Locations, types of objective, story backgrounds and tactical opportunities. Fans were eager to get each new episode in order to discover its unique content. Hitman succeeded in creating anticipation for each new episode.
However, the comparison with episodic design does not go beyond that. Characters are not developed, the game’s main narrative arch is not put forward in early episodes; there are almost no cliffhangers at the end of each episode and there is no secondary narrative arch.
« The future awaits to be built»
Hitman goes in the right direction. It is a true action game with a solid gameplay but it does not capitalize on the strengths of episodic storytelling and it frustrated players that had to wait for the next missions.
I think it is possible to develop games that combine the strengths of solid gameplay and episodic storytelling. To demonstrate it, I will describe two game concepts in the next two episodes of this feature. My purpose will be to show that it is possible to make mass-market games better with episodic narration.
I’ll begin with a concept for the leading genre on home consoles: Shooters.
Stay tune for part 2.
My previous publication on episodic design: